Sunday, August 10, 2008

Civil Sphere and Naked Public Square

Reader Corky asked this question of my previous post on Jeffrey Alexander's seeming ban on hierarchy in the civil sphere: "So how is Alexander's desire for nonintrusion different from the ugliness of the 'naked public square?'" This is an excellent question.

I have been wondering as I read whether Alexander is simply defining "civil" as "secular." On the rare occasions when he does mention religion, he usually says that religious understanding is either a negative intrusion that needs to be overcome as a dangerous essentialism of (falsely) primordial groups, or is a positive kind of social action that nonetheless needs to be translated into an idiom appropriate for modern secular societies.

So is the civil sphere the naked public square? In the sense that Richard John Neuhaus meant in the book of the same name, clearly yes. Alexander's civil sphere needs, he believes, to be defended from "intrusions" from the religious sphere; intrusions in the other direction are legitimate regulatory "inputs."

In another sense, though, the civil sphere is not a naked public square. Alexander fills his civil sphere with all kinds of moral content, even moral aspirations. Political campaigns, social movements, and other sorts of interpretive arguments take place within the civil sphere. In this version, it sounds like the marketplace of ideas, though perhaps with a bit more institutional muscle. Even religious arguments seem to be permitted in this civil sphere, as long as those who make them claim no authority as religious leaders.

In Alexander's long account of the civil rights movement as an exemplary case of "civil repair," he does allow that Martin Luther King's faith, and that of other religious figures who were leaders in the movement, may be taken seriously as a motive. The movement was not simply about power, and it did not proceed simply by mobilizing material resources. Yet Alexander himself seems tone deaf -- perhaps we should say "religiously unmusical," using Weber's wonderful phrase -- when trying to deal with the content of that (or any) faith.

I will return to this question when I consider his treatment of anti-semitism and the Holocaust.

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